Is there a housing development near you, if so, what is its environmental impact?
As we look around us at the volume of new building work in progress, continually eating into our countryside, we need to decide how this problem can be resolved. The Government has ambitions to build over 300,000 homes but their methods of calculating housing need by algorithms has been brought into question.
The legislation controlling the impact of development on our precious countryside, our rivers and the environment as a
whole, needs to be questioned. We need to be reassured that development does not cause environmental damage and that no net loss of countryside habitat results.
Presently all development is controlled through the Town and Country Planning Act which was first published in 1947. This has been supported by the National Planning Policy Framework, last revised in 2019 and Planning Policy Guidelines (PPGs). The control of local development is handled by each Local Planning Authority (LPA) in the form of a Local Plan.
The present planning system, administered by each LPA, has become too complex, too slow and uncoordinated. Each Planning Authority has its own “Local Plan” and methods of collecting developer contributions (Infrastructure Levies). There is a multitude of specialist reports required to accompany each planning application, which not only increases the cost, but slows the decision process.
The new document, published August 2020, is titled Planning for the Future. It has been out to public consultation and is presently going through parliamentary procedures. A recent supplementary briefing paper, Planning Policy Changes in England 2020 with future reforms (10 March 2021) summarises the many objections and comments received from Local Government Associations, the CPRE, professional organisations and other stakeholders.
The revisions are a complete rewriting of Planning Law and have many radical changes to streamline and speed up the planning process. It is unlikely this new planning legislation will become law before 2023, if at all given current speculation. The Local Plan, prepared by the LPA, will be the fundamental document identifying land available for development, local environmental issues and local design codes, etc. Housing development is proposed to be divided into areas of Growth, Renewal and Protected.
The Growth areas are identified by the LPA as Designated Area Approval and presumes that development will automatically have Outline Planning Consent and give more certainty for developer land purchase. It also presumes that the LPA have carried out all the environmental assessments of the land in question called the single statutory sustainability test. This also applies to Ports, Airports and major commercial developments.
The Renewal area refers to Brownfield Sites, previously developed land, and incorporates a change of use of existing redundant buildings. Protected land includes Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Parks, wildlife habitats, ancient woodlands, and others, where no development is permitted. It includes strategic gaps between built-up areas and appropriate land use. The LPA is required to produce an easily understood coloured zone plan for comment by the local community entitled Stewardship of our Countryside and to involve the local community in its decisions.
The new document provides for a National Development Infrastructure Levy, adjusted for local Area differences, which provide funds to the LPA, to include the provision of “offset land” to mitigate for nitrate generation, habitat loss, flooding, local community facilities, road structure and other infrastructure.
The Government has already introduced a range of permitted development rights (PDRs), which do not require planning approval. These include conversion of existing buildings for new use and have expanded the extension rights to existing domestic dwellings. There are several PDRs for small scale new buildings, such as a home office within the curtilage of a dwelling site, but with height and boundary restrictions. A requirement for “Local Community Consultation” is part of the PDRs, including unneighbourly objections.
The new planning document calls for Sustainable Development, which should produce net gains in biodiversity, a low carbon footprint and be “zero carbon ready”. It should consider climate change, value green spaces and make “beautiful places”. Planning will be granted on a “fast track” process through Local Authority Policies, which have the benefit of local knowledge and land management.
There is also some protection through the Environment Bill 2019 which advocates “environmental net gains” of at least 10%. This requires a developer to assess the Local Environment and to ensure that natural land resources, such as green spaces for wilding, remain undisturbed. This “net gain” could be achieved offsite or included in the proposed development. The Countryside Act also prevents developments which would otherwise be proposed in rural areas especially in areas designated “green belt”.
Natural England (NE) has developed a Biodiversity Metric “net gain” calculator. This considers local fauna and habitat, biodiversity, and rewilding corridors to which it applies a percentage formula to enable Local Authorities (LAs) using this information to ensure that any new development does not degrade its local environment.
The problem here is that only one in five LAs have trained Chartered Environmental personnel who can responsibly assess proposals put forward by developers and their “expert” consultants. Put simply, a developer can buy land off-site and improve its diversity metric, by planting trees and wildflowers and so meet the rewilding requirement.
The Planning Process will still be within the administration of the LPA but it will be structured more by National Policy and design guidance and will have one single National developer Infrastructure Levy adjusted for local Area differences. Much housing development does not visually enhance the countryside and often lacks “greening” of the site.
The document calls for a framework for improved design quality “Beautiful Homes”, and an increase in both landscaping and natural wildlife habitats. The design of new development is to be based on a “National Design Guide”, with appropriate local variations together with Local Design Codes.
The Solent Protection Society have concerns that these latest apparent good intentions and controls to protect our environment will not be sufficiently effective. The streamlining and fast tracking of the planning process, the automatic granting of planning in Growth Areas, permitted development rights on Brownfield sites, coupled with the increased permitted development rights on private housing, flats and any redundant commercial buildings may well worsen the current situation.
It is not clear how the National Environmental tests will be developed, and how one test will incorporate all the varying
specialisations into one statutory report. This is an area of considerable concern to SPS.
Development always has a way of meeting legislation and finding ways to satisfy the LPA. The recent Nitrate offset is a perfect example of manipulation (set-off) to achieve Nitrate Neutrality. New housing continues to follow traditional designs and has little to offer in terms of innovation to soften the visual impact on the countryside. It is not energy efficient and burning fossil fuel for heating is adding to air pollution. Targeting the “Zero Carbon Ready” requirement is proving difficult to achieve, as the Building Regulation insulation requirements are not consistent with using traditional building design.
Even Sustainable Drainage is adding to our over stretched wastewater systems. Surface water run-off and its resultant sewage discharges, the release of nitrates and phosphates through the sewer system, results in further pollution to our water systems.
It is difficult to see how the Government’s ambitions to build over 300,000 homes can result in anything other than damage to our Environment. The change from discretionary “case by case” planning decisions to FastTrack Designated Area automatic approval is a radical change that puts into question how the local community can comment on new development and its effect on the local environment.
We need to see that new development closely follows the latest guidelines and is enforced by law. Local Authorities need experts to establish accurate Local Plans and ensure they follow their own guidelines without pressure from the development itself. More public awareness, and subsequent meaningful comment, needs to be made, not only from organisations such as the Solent Protection Society, but by the general public. Comment needs to be environmentally sound and not the “NIMBY” statements that are so often expressed.
We should all work together to achieve a better Built Environment. By encouraging our local community to become more involved in planning issues and by working together with our LPA we will successfully protect our Environment in the short and long term.